Tiny Turks and Caicos overwhelmed by Haitian influx

Gemma Handy
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The port district of Cap-Haitien is a hub for a people smuggling trade that has claimed numerous lives, plunging the nearby British territory of Turks and Caicos into chaos

Handmade wooden boats and the artisans who craft them line a lengthy stretch of Haiti's north coast. Under a sun rising over water as smooth as glass, it makes for an idyllic vignette.

Ask any of the boat builders what their vessels' purpose is and "fishing" is the standard response.

But the port district of Cap-Haitien is a hub for a people smuggling trade that has claimed numerous lives and plunged the nearby British territory of Turks and Caicos into chaos.

"We have begged the UK to help. I don't think they realize how urgent the situation is," said the archipelago's housing minister, Goldray Ewing.

"As a British territory we don't have our own defense force. We told them it's an invasion and a national crisis. There's no other way to describe it."

Each year, thousands of young Haitians try to escape the poorest economy in the Caribbean, where 60 percent of the population of 11 million people live on less than $2 a day.

High inflation, endemic corruption and a perilous drop in the value of the currency have further immiserated the locals.

Turks and Caicos officials say almost all of the boats landing in the island chain depart from Cap-Haitien, 125 miles (200 kilometers) away.

With migrants willing to pay anything from $300 to $1,000 to reach the territory of 35,000 people in the hope of a better life, this is big business.

At least five boats have arrived in the last month, carrying 50 to 200 people each. But journeys aboard these rickety, overcrowded vessels too often end in disaster.

A boat that sank on February 2 near the Bahamas, which is also struggling with an influx of undocumented migrants, killed at least 28 people.

- 'Existential threat' -

Turks and Caicos officials say inadequate resources limit them to intercepting just half of the boats that arrive.

Several thousand Haitians are thought to be hiding in the bush and in shantytowns across the island of Providenciales, the chain's tourism hotspot, with a population of 24,000.

Undocumented arrivals are nothing new but recent unrest in Haiti and new job opportunities in Providenciales have triggered a dramatic surge.

Ewing, the housing minister, says repatriation costs for a boat carrying 187 people that landed on the island of Salt Cay on January 17 topped $300,000.

Opposition leader Washington Misick argued the Haitian government could not be counted on to stem the flow of migrants -- while noting that its economy benefited from the remittances they send home.

"The situation poses an existential threat to our islands and our way of life," he said.

But the Haitians prepared to make the treacherous voyage say it is their only hope for a better future.

"I need work," said one Cap-Haitien man, "and I know people there who can help me find it."

A British government delegation is due to visit next month to assess maritime security needs, a spokesman for Governor John Freeman told AFP, adding that London deployed the Royal Navy last year, funded helicopter patrols and paid for repairs to the radar system.

- Seeking a better life -

President Donald Trump's effort to end "temporary protected status" for Haitians who fled the 2010 earthquake, currently being challenged in court, has sparked fears over a possible escalation of the crisis.

Meanwhile the 14 shantytowns across the Turks and Caicos grow every day, said Ewing. Newcomers cause difficulties for long-term residents, one shanty-dweller said.

"The area gets flooded with people coming in fresh off the boats and they're not always friendly," he told AFP. "They sometimes bring guns with them -- it's frightening for us. People just keep coming."

Efforts to identify people who are on the islands illegally include a police practice of stop-and-search, along with visits to workplaces to view employees' papers.

Since April 2016, anyone caught harboring illegal immigrants has faced a $20,000 fine and four years in prison.

Some Haitian officials have lamented a lack of communication with Turks and Caicos authorities.

"People are deported and we have no idea who they are or where they go once they return home," a spokesman for the Haitian Consulate in Providenciales said.

"Consequently, we see the same people trying over and over again."

A domestic worker in Cap-Haitien, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she had made three attempts to reach Providenciales but was intercepted every time by the US Coast Guard and turned back.

Each time she has taken a year to raise the $300 fee but she knows that if she is successful, she can make her usual monthly salary of $100 in a day or two.

Asked if she intends to try again soon, she looks at the ground before shyly answering: "Yes. Everybody misses home but it's worth it to find a happier life."